Virtual travels – conservation stories from Italy. PART II: Firenze

Kate Waldron, Jo Neville and Rowan Frame

Thank you for joining us for the second blog post sharing our experiences of a study trip to Italy in July 2019! Following the format of our itinerary in Rome, this part of the trip involved visits to further renowned schools and institutions of conservation in the city of Florence, meeting yet more lovely and inspiring people who were pleased to share their work with us – and finding windows of extra time to pop into a beautiful church or two. Without further ado we will pick up where we left off, arriving in Florence for a busy, exciting and incredibly hot two days…

Thursday, 18th July 2019

Visit to the Studio Arts College International (SACI) – Jo

On the morning of our third day, we paid a visit to the Studio Arts College International (SACI). SACI is housed in a Renaissance palazzo in the centre of Florence. Stepping into the building, we could hear voices of chattering students echoing through arched hallways. In many ways, this visit offered interesting comparisons to our own department. SACI was founded a year after the Hamilton Kerr Institute, and also offers a diploma course in the conservation of paintings.

Over coffee, we were able to talk to current conservation students, and had lively discussions about their training and projects. It was clear that the SACI diploma course has an international reach, with many students having come from the U.S. We learned that in situ work is a very central aspect of their training, with an impressive range of projects undertaken both in Florentine churches as well as further afield.

Students at the SACI at work on their projects. Photograph © Jo Neville.

We were then given an extensive tour of the studios by the head of department, Dr. Roberta Lapucci. We saw paintings that presented a wide variety of conservation challenges, and discussed similarities and differences to the conservation practices commonly employed at our own studio.  For retouching, we noted the diverse shades of brown on retouching palettes, leading to a fascinating comparison of Italian and British approaches to the question of patina on paintings.  There were also many familiar sights: Rowan and I were pleased to see the reconstructions made by SACI conservation students, which looked very similar to those that we had completed earlier in the year.

To round off the visit, we were given a tour of the archaeological conservation studio with Dr Nora Marosi, and introduced to some of the current projects. This included a very interesting discussion about the central role of the soprintendenza (the Ministry of Arts and Cultural Heritage) for conservation decisions concerning all objects that belong to the Italian State, and about some of the regional differences in choice of materials and techniques for certain conservation treatments. We were also shown some amazing 3D-printed replicas of objects for display (pictured).

Dr Nora Marosi showing us some 3D-printed replicas. Photograph © Kate Waldron.

Visit to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure – Rowan and Kate

In the afternoon, we reconvened at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro (OPD). We were greeted by Marco Ciatti, director of the laboratory and of the higher education school of training for conservator-restorers at the Institute, where he is teacher of the history and theory of conservation on the 5-year programme (established in 1978). Marco gave us an engaging introduction to the Institute and its part in the history of conservation in Florence, from the time of Vasari to the catastrophic flood of 1966. It was at the time of the flood that the Opificio relocated from the Uffizi to its present location in a striking building that used to be a military fortress. When the Italian government formed a Ministry of Cultural Heritage in 1975, the restoration laboratory of the soprintendenza was merged with the OPD under the directorship of Umberto Baldini, to form a National Institute of Conservation, and today the Institute receives artworks from all over Italy including paintings, sculpture, textiles, works on paper, mosaics, jewellery, and objects of terracotta and stone.

The Opificio prides itself on being a renowned centre of research as well as restoration and training, and there is a strong specialisation in the conservation of paintings on panel. The enormous building is divided into areas focusing on selected aspects of conservation treatment, with, for example, a whole room dedicated to working on the paint layers. We were given a tour of the institute and moved from painting to painting, in each case hearing from Marco about the analysis or treatment undertaken and enjoying the opportunity to admire the beautiful artwork and discuss the artists. Many of the paintings return to churches so it was interesting to hear about the questions and procedures involved for preparing them for those environments. Like the HKI, Marco emphasised that the OPD is open to researching new methods and technologies under development for conservation treatments and incorporating them into their practice.

One of the most exciting things was to hear about the expert, complex structural treatments carried out on a number of panel paintings in the studio, with techniques that were developed there and are the subject of continuing research and refinement: the OPD remains a centre of excellence globally for the development of solutions for structural conservation and support for paintings on panel.

It was an incredibly hot day, so after our visit we went as a group to enjoy some more gelato! The treat was kindly paid for by the members of Cambridge Arts Society, as a thank you after a visit they paid to the HKI earlier in the year.

Enjoying our ice-creams beneath the beautiful and famous tabernacles of the church of Orsanmichele. Photographs © Jo Neville.

Not forgetting Rupert, Vicky and Adèle!

Friday, 19th July 2019

Visit to the studio of Stefano Scarpelli – Kate

On our final day, we visited the private conservation studio of Stefano Scarpelli. Along a corridor lined with cabinets full of brightly-coloured pigments, we met Stefano and his son in their main studio space, and glimpsed other rooms beyond with forests of frames and paintings. Stefano studied conservation at the OPD and later taught the relining course there. Before that, he trained as a conservator under Professor Edo Masini, the former technical director of the paintings conservation lab at the OPD and a prominent Florentine conservator. Stefano later went on to collaborate with Masini and has worked for major galleries in Florence and elsewhere, and on high profile works of art by artists including Giotto, Masaccio and Caravaggio.

Mostly, Stefano mostly works for private collections and galleries, but the studio has worked for the Uffizi and other public collections. Although they are familiar with contemporary developments in conservation methods and materials, they always start with traditional methods and this is their preference, as they are familiar with the materials and how they age. Stefano and his studio undertake all of their own structural work and lining of paintings, and also the work on frames. It was fascinating to hear about Stefano’s experiences of lining paintings, especially in the context of changing attitudes and approaches to lining in Florence and Italy over the years. We were introduced to several paintings which will be lined in the studio, including a painting that was severely damaged by flooding in the church to which it belongs. We also learned of Stefano’s procedures for retouching: for paintings owned by the Italian State, trateggio (see previous blog post) is the only retouching technique that is accepted. For other works, imitative retouching is done instead, as we are accustomed to doing in the UK.

Some reflections…

We had such an enlightening tour of conservation studios in Italy, augmented by visits to the breathtaking art in some of Italy’s best galleries and churches. At the institutions we visited, I was particularly struck watching students retouching using the trateggio technique. We learn about this in our own training, but I have not ever used the technique myself and I had never seen it in action before. It was much more complex than I could have imagined and I was in awe of the speed and precision with which the students worked. We were also conscious of the differences in material choices between conservators at different institutions, some remaining attached to historical or traditional materials and others being more open to new technologies and methods. However, the constant and resounding message we received from the conservators we met is that it is the skill of application that is perceived as key.

I want to end with a few thoughts from the final excursion of our time in Florence, on the afternoon of our last day before we returned home to the (rainy and cold) UK. We were treated to our very own private tour of the magnificent church of Santa Maria Novella, the main Dominican church in Florence, by Roberta Lapucci. It was my first visit to the church, yet it contains so many artworks that were central to my undergraduate art history studies and imprinted themselves in my memory. Roberta began with Masaccio’s groundbreaking Holy Trinity fresco, and told us about the process by which it was physically transferred from its unknown original location to its present position on the north wall of the nave, as well as other aspects of its conservation history. It was especially wonderful to hear about the technical art history of Giotto’s monumental crucifix, with emphasis on the skill of the carpentry and construction. I was particularly struck by the discoveries about the underdrawing: while the main composition is drawn freehand, the outline for the cross is known to have been provided by the church, and the faces of John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary are scored out according to ‘mask’-like models, called patroni, that would also have been imposed by the church. As we continued our tour of the church and cloisters, we also learned about some of the complex and devastating ways in which some of the frescoes have decayed over time or been damaged by ill-informed methods of cleaning in the past.

Making our way to Santa Maria Novella. Photograph © Hamilton Kerr Institute.

The visit to Santa Maria Novella served as a reminder to be thankful for every opportunity we have in our lives to experience direct close encounters with works of art. As events this year have shown, one can never know how long it might be before the next opportunity will arise – even if you work with art every day.

Grüße aus Wien! Vienna Study Trip 2017

During the final week of May 2017 the students and interns at the Hamilton Kerr Institute travelled to Vienna for our annual study trip. Two members of staff, Morwenna Blewett and Lucy Wrapson, joined us on the trip, and we are very grateful to them for organising all of the interesting visits that we had during our stay. Throughout the week we were able to explore the vast collections of artworks held by the Viennese cultural institutions, whilst also taking a peek behind the scenes through exclusive visits to the conservation studios at the Palais Liechtenstein and the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The Albertina & Le Palais Liechtenstein 

During our first day of studio visits we spent our free morning visiting the Albertina: a building with original neoclassical interior decoration, which boasts a broad collection of modern art pieces. Whether your preference is Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso or the less-known works of the German Expressionist Karl Hofer, this museum has something for everyone. Until June 18 2017 the Museum is also showcasing an exhibition of graphic works by the Austrian master Egon Schiele: a must see for those of you who are venturing to Vienna in the near future.

Following a picnic lunch in sparkling sunshine at Park Burggarden we headed off to our first conservation studio visit at the Liechtenstein Garden Palace. To start off our visit we were given a private tour of the palace’s galleries by head of conservation, Dr Robert Wald. I think I speak for all of us in saying that we were blown away by the splendour of the palace’s art collection. With works ranging from Italian quattrocento panel paintings to large-scale tapestry designs by Peter Paul Rubens, the Princely Collection is perhaps one of the most thoughtfully put-together and well-preserved group of artworks that I have had the pleasure of viewing. A particular favourite was the seventeenth-century carriage that is on display in the main entrance hall of the palace, seemingly plucked from the prop selection of Disney’s 2015 Cinderella remake.

After our tour in the galleries Dr Wald took us to see the palace’s conservation studio, situated in a purpose-built adjacent building. Here we were introduced to the studio’s conservation staff and were also invited to take a look at their current treatment projects. It was interesting to note the similarities and differences between the conservation practices of Wald’s studio with those commonly employed at the HKI. A notable difference was their approach to retouching, which makes use of gouache or watercolour base layers, followed by thinly applied glazes using pigments bound in an oil-resin medium. Although this method differs from the HKI’s use of egg tempera and Gamblin colours, we found that the Austrian tradition offered a comparable result, whilst also serving as an example of differing approaches within the western conservation world.

Kunsthistorisches Museum

Our second day included a visit to the conservation studio of the Vienna Museum of Fine Arts. We spent the morning exploring the collection itself, which was developed from the art collections of the Habsburg Family. This colossal collection is one of the largest of its kind and boasts works by Titian, Rubens and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I particularly enjoyed seeing Bruegel’s The Great Tower of Babel for the first time, a painting that I had long admired since my adolescent years.

Our tour of the Museum’s conservation studio was very interesting as well. Amongst other things, we were introduced to the treatment of a panel painting by Lucas Cranach, as well as a village fête scene by Bruegel the Elder. It was also interesting to observe the consistencies and differences between the conservation approaches of the Museum with those of the studio at the Palais Liechtenstein. A notable similarity is their shared preference for the use of natural resin varnishes, as well as the latter studio’s approach to retouching. Another aspect of the Austrian conservation tradition, which is less-commonly employed in British institutions, is the thinning of old varnishes, as opposed to their complete removal. The opportunity to learn about the conservation practices and traditions of another country was a fascinating experience, teaching us that there is more than one approach when it comes to restoring paintings.

 Institute of Conservation & Akademie der Bildenen Künste

Our final day of visits included tours of the two major conservation schools in Austria. The first was the Institute of Conservation, where we met with Prof. Gabriela Krist. The school offers a variety of conservation specialisms, including textiles, objects and metalwork, as well as paintings and polychrome sculpture. The focus of our visit was the paintings conservation department, although it was also interesting to see the types of objects that are conserved in the other departments as well.

Our second visit for the day was to the Akademie der Bildenen Künste. We were greeted by the head of the institute, Prof. Wolfgang Baatz, who showed us around the conservation studios. Like the Institute of Conservation, the Akademie offers courses in objects, paintings and polychrome sculpture conservation. However unlike the former school, the Akademie also has a wall paintings conservation department, as well as a newly established department that focuses solely on the conservation of contemporary artworks. The issues involved with dealing with contemporary art pieces were a particularly interesting aspect of our visit, as it is a sphere of conservation that we rarely get to deal with at the Hamilton Kerr Institute.

 Our Final Day- Gustav Klimt at the Belvedere

Sad as we were to be leaving Vienna after such a short stay, we decided to make the most of our last full day by visiting the Belvedere Gallery– home to The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, as well as an impressive collection of Austrian art dating from the Middle Ages to the present day. Needless to say, this last visit served as the icing on top of the cake- or the chocolate stamp on top of the sachertorte if you will. My particular favourites included Egon Schiele’s Mother with Two Children, a beautiful, serene painting that I feel displays the artist’s mastery of form and colour, as well as Klimt’s series of square-format flower paintings. The latter paintings are displayed in a room of their own at the Belvedere, in the section preceding the infamous Kiss painting. It was easy to feel completely lost in this room, as the paintings seem to project their subject matter outwards, whilst also drawing the viewer in, demonstrating Klimt’s simultaneous mastery of the surreal and the realistic- it was difficult to ascertain where the paintings ended and the illusion began.

To sum up, we left Vienna with our minds saturated with images of art and our bellies full of Wiener schnitzel, apple strudel and more than a glass or two of white wine spritzer. I would definitely recommend a visit to this gorgeous city to any art-lover, or indeed anyone interested in seeing a city that is full of history, quirky coffee shops and delicious food. Auf Wiedersehen Wien, bis zum nächsten Mal!

Emma Jansson, 1st year Post-Graduate Intern (2016-2018)

About the author

Emma Jansson graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2016, having completed the three-year Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings. She also holds a BA in History of Art/Archaeology and Japanese Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Emma has experience working in both private conservation studios in London and public institutions. Her most recent placements include internships at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, as well as an in situ project at the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Palace. She is also involved in the technical analysis of artworks. Her final-year thesis at the Courtauld Institute focused on the materials and technique of the Impressionist artist Alfred Sisley. Emma is continuing her interest in technical art history at the HKI, where she is involved in several research projects, including a study on the uptake of artificial ultramarine by British artists in the nineteenth century.  

To contact Emma:

Madrid Study Trip

At the beginning of June, the Interns, students and two staff members of the Hamilton Kerr Institute travelled to Madrid for the annual study trip, visiting the cultural highlights of the Spanish capital and some of the major conservation studios. We enjoyed the hospitality and refined culinary traditions of Spain, guided by second year HKI intern Carlos González Juste who lived in Madrid before moving to Cambridge.

Casa de las Conchas

The day after we arrived in Madrid, we travelled out of the city to visit Spain’s oldest University Town, Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the city’s most remarkable buildings is the House of the Shells, or Casa de las Conchas, a late gothic palace covered with stone carved shells. Hidden away in Salamanca’s back streets is the Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco that houses a collection of remarkable glassware, furniture, dolls and paintings by Ignacio Zuloaga.

The Crown of thorns

Our first studio visit took us to the headquarters of the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España (Cultural Heritage of Spain), located on the outskirts of the city. The circular building is one of the most remarkable architectural structures of the 1960’s, and is nicknamed “the Crown of Thorns”. After visiting the entrance hall, library and rooftop terrace we were guided around the sculpture and painting conservation departments, as well as the laboratories. We were introduced to the materials and techniques used in the making of traditional Spanish baroque sculptures, like the laying-in of glass eyes, use of ivory teeth and genuine hair in the representation of saints.

Hidden studios

In one of the narrow streets in the centre of Madrid lies the private conservation studio ICONO I&R S.C. We were guided around by co-owner and conservator Rafael Romero Asenjo, specialist on 17th century Spanish still-lives, some of which we admired while touring the studio. At the end of this exciting day, we walked to another hidden gem, the rooftop of the Círculo de Bellas Artes to enjoy a panoramic view of the city.

Back to School

On our third day we visited the Escuela Superior de Conservación y Restauración De Bienes Culturales, where our colleague Carlos trained as a conservator. We were introduced to the four year BA- and one year Master program and guided around the studios housed in a 17th century palace. In the wall-painting conservation studio , a monumental canvas painting was currently being treated. The numerous bullet holes that perforated the painting were a reminder of the violent civil war that raged through Spain in the 1930’s. Other highlights of our visit included a roman pillar with ancient graffiti, traditional Spanish fans, paintings on glass supports and the challenging support treatments in the panel paintings studio.

In his Majesty’s service

Inside the magnificent Palacio Real de Madrid are located the conservation studios and Royal workshop of the King. We walked through a long corridor with a seemingly infinite amount of doors on either side. Behind every door was housed a different studio: clocks, paper and book, painting, metal…

The first room we entered was the studio responsible for the maintenance and repair of the ca.700 clocks, tower bells, music boxes and organ pieces dispersed over the Royal palaces. The specialist skills required for this work takes many years of practice, and has unfortunately become a dying trade.

In one of the studios, we saw a rare piece of royal transport history, the litter used by the elderly Emperor Charles V. After visiting paper and book conservation as well as frame conservation, we arrived at the studio designated for the treatment of small scale paintings. On the easel stood a delightful Madonna and Child by Quinten Massys which was in the process of having its varnish removed. The conservators often work on location for larger pieces, like the treatment of the monumental Crucifixion by Rogier van der Weyden kept at the Escorial Palace. Just next to the Royal Quarters, right on the first floor of the Palacio Real, a painting conservator was finishing the treatment of several large pieces by the neoclassical painter Anton Raphael Mengs, a favourite of Charles III of Spain.

The surface of Guernica 

Spain’s national museum of 20th century art, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, houses a world renowned collection of modern art. The most enigmatic work of its collection is Pablo Picasso’s magnum opus: Guernica. A team of conservators and computer technicians have recently completed an imaging project, scanning the monumental canvas in high resolution. This makes the monitoring and studying of the painting’s fragile surface much easier for conservators and art historians. The team of 22 conservators are mainly involved in the loan requests the museum receives, preparing paintings for transport and assessing their condition. Most treatments are limited to stabilising the artwork and minimal intervention, as modern and contemporary artworks present challenges the conservation world has not fully mastered yet.

Garden of Earthly Delights

The Museo Nacional del Prado is a true garden of delights for the art lover, where the walls are adorned with works by Titian, Van der Weyden, Rubens, Velázquez and Goya. The conservation studios have recently been moved to the museums new extension, the former monastery of San Jerónimo el Real. We were shown some of the panel support systems that were developed by the Panel Painting Initiative, a project that was conducted with the help of the Getty Conservation Institute. After discussing some of the treatments, we moved to the museum’s laboratory. The imaging facilities and analytical techniques employed by the scientists are tailored to answer specific questions asked by curators and conservators. In recent years, the laboratory has conducted ground-breaking work on the analysis of historic materials used in Spanish paintings, especially the composition of ground layers.

*For security reasons, no photos were allowed to be taken during the tour*

Following the studio visit, we went to see the blockbuster exhibition on Hieronymus Bosch, better known in Spain as El Bosco, and an exhibition on the French baroque artist Georges de La Tour.

The Hamilton Kerr Institute at the Bosch Exhibition (© Page)

The ghost of El Greco

On Friday we took the train to the nearby city of Toledo, a medieval stronghold which history goes back to Roman times. The astonishing buildings and structures across the city are a reminder of Toledo’s complex cultural and religious history. The Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo houses many 15th century altarpieces and the recently restored Disrobing by El Greco. The artist lived in Toledo for most of his life and many of his paintings have been preserved in Toledo’s churches and monasteries. In the Santo Domingo el Antiguo, the local nun pointed out a hole in the floor, where the artist is supposedly buried. Before we travelled back to Madrid we acquired a few bags of the famous Toledo marzipan, in the hope to make it last until we were back to England.

Our study trip to Madrid, on top of being sunny and full of delicious food, was an absolute delight as there were so many beautiful artworks and buildings to enjoy. The Bosch exhibition was everyone’s favourite, and we would like to encourage people to kill two birds with one stone by going to see it when you visit Madrid, as many of the paintings belonging to the Prado, such as the Earthy Delights, will never travel in order to preserve the condition of these masterpieces.

Sven van Dorst – 2nd year Post Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

About the author

Sven Van Dorst graduated magna cum laude at the Artesis University College Antwerp (Belgium) in 2012, majoring in painting conservation and restoration. The following two years he worked on several projects at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp and as a freelance conservator and painter. Sven commenced a two-year postgraduate internship at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in 2014. Working on several Dutch and Flemish paintings by Rubens, de Fromantiou and van de Cappelle, as well as an Italian cassone and a quattrocento panel painting.

Recently Sven published an article on the technique of Antwerp flower painters for the catalogue of the exhibition Power Flower: Foral still lifes in the Netherlands at the Antwerp Rockoxhuis Museum. At the moment the results of his research project on the flower painter Daniel Seghers are on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, and will be published in the upcoming Hamilton kerr Bulletin 2016. The author has previously contributed articles to Openbaar Kunstbezit Vlaanderen (OKV), CeROArt and the BRK/APROA –bulletin.

To contact Sven:

 Studio Visit to the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum attracts millions of visitors through its doors, but very few are afforded the chance to venture behind the scenes. Therefore, we felt very privileged to visit the V&A’s Painting Conservation Department on our recent trip to London, especially with Head Painting Conservator, Nicola Costaras, as our guide.

Painting Gallery at the V&A (© Polkownik)

Ranging from its well-known Old Master and Victorian paintings, to a growing number of contemporary works, the V&A has some 2000 paintings in its collection. Their preservation is a multi-faceted and demanding task. Aside from performing practical treatments and implementing preventative conservation strategies, the Painting Conservation Department carries out scholarly research into the collection and shares it through a number of platforms, be it in person, print or online through the V&A’s blog. In addition to caring for the V&A’s permanent collection, the department also takes responsibility for the many paintings which arrive as part of temporary exhibitions and displays. This is no mean feat, especially considering it is all achieved with only one permanent staff member, conservators hired for particular projects, and student placements, a fact which left us all the more impressed by the work we saw.

IMG_8190 - Copy
Conservation Studio, Painting Side (© Polkownik)

 As we walked through the studio Nicola showed us several paintings and discussed with us their diverse problems and the appropriate solutions that were fashioned to overcome them.

The paintings themselves were representative of the V&A’s scope and influence.

One of the first pieces we saw was a Constable oil sketch, one of ninety-two owned by the V&A. Hearing about these sketches exemplified the ever-growing role conservators play in understanding and sharing the physical art history locked within paintings. Through their various conservation treatments, these sketches have revealed Constable’s unique and thrifty use of materials. Sometimes he painted on both sides of his supports, which were themselves often cobbled together out of whatever materials he had close to hand. The sketch we saw had been mounted on paper then lined, by Constable, onto canvas. It was interesting to learn that many of his oil sketches were posthumously lined with canvas, deliberately recasting sketches intended as impressions into final works to bolster their desirability and sale value.

Nicola also pulled out three recently acquired (2009) North Korean paintings for us to contemplate. While their subject-matter, which extols the state’s leaders and military, did not come as any surprise, the Western, particularly Impressionist, style of the paintings did. Their presence in the collection grants a rare insight into the artistic output of a country shrouded in mystery, underlining the V&A’s continued role in bringing the art of far-flung parts of the world to a wider audience and to the attention of the British public.

Costaras showing us special paintings living in the drawers (© Polkownik)

Going around the studio, one was struck not only by the geographical breadth of the collection, but by the variety of materials on which the paintings were executed. Nicola neatly illustrated this by opening a plan-chest drawer to reveal a painted backdrop curtain from a marionette-theatre and an early 17th century oil painting on marble, mounted on slate, which depicted the baptism of Christ. The latter was especially attractive, as the artist had incorporated the natural patterns of the marble into the composition, with the veining forming a celestial kingdom populated by angels and cherubim.

The V&A is an active and enterprising global organisation. Consequently, preparation for loans and exhibitions forms a core component of the department’s workload. We were fortunate for our visit to coincide with the exhibition Botticelli Reimagined and see the fruits of their labours in the form of Botticelli’s Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli, c.1470-5, which was restored especially for the exhibition. Nicola kindly armed us with the infrared and before and during treatment images, allowing us to visually trace its evolution from Botticelli’s initial sketched design to its current state via the twisted byroads of vandalism (her right eye and mouth were scored by an unknown hand) and historic restorations (including those done by the artist, and previous owner of the painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

It was a pleasure visiting the department and hearing about the complexities and nuances of the V&A’s collection from the perspective of its conservators. Our sincere thanks to Nicola Costaras for being so informative and generous with her time. We look forward to hearing her and Clare Richardson’s talk ‘Botticelli’s Portrait known as Smeralda Bandinelli; a technical study’ at the V&A’s forthcoming international two-day conference ‘Botticelli: Past and Present’.

Amiel Clarke, 2nd year Student at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

Courtyard of the V&A (© Polkownik)

About the author

Amiel Clarke is in her second year of studies at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, where she is working towards attaining a Post-graduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings. She graduated with an MA in History of Art from the University of Edinburgh in 2012. During her studies she has undertaken placements at the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre and the HKI’s Ebury Street studio.

To contact Amiel Clarke:

Studio Visits to the Guildhall Art Gallery and Tate Britain

One of the great advantages of the Hamilton Kerr Institute is its proximity to London and the opportunity for students and post-graduate interns to visit museums, view exhibitions, and tour conservation departments in various institutions. In April, a group from the HKI visited the paintings conservation studios at the Guildhall Art Gallery and Tate Britain.

Outside the Guildhall Art Gallery (© Polkownik)

Although I have to admit I had no prior familiarity with the Guildhall Art Gallery, I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this grand building with a beautiful and sensitively-displayed, mostly nineteenth century collection of paintings. In conversation with the conservators, we learned that the gallery was conceived as a static hang, but that special exhibitions are now part of its remit. The space also frequently hosts various events and functions: this requires specific recommendations from conservators to cover all sorts of situations and requests – from using hair spray to garment steamers.

The conservation department consists of two paintings conservators and one frame conservator, who all work part-time. Most of the treatments carried out are generated by the needs of exhibitions or loans. In the paintings conservation studio, we had the opportunity to view a seascape by Scottish painter Peter Graham (1836-1921) being treated for an exhibition opening in September 2016 called ‘Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy.’ This painting was brought into the studio because of its structural issues and potential for aesthetic improvement. A particular concern for the unlined work was the weakening of the turning edges due to the scale of the painting and thickness of the paint layers. Several members of our group from the HKI had prior familiarity with Graham’s work, which led to a productive conversation with the Guildhall Art Gallery conservators about the painter’s technique and tendency to rework his paintings numerous times.

In the frames conservation department, we had an equally stimulating discussion regarding the process of re-gilding frames and the ethics of frame restoration. We additionally came away with the surprising tidbit of information that gin (having the right proportions of alcohol and water) is the optimal solution to use during the process of water gilding.

Paintings Conservator Nancy Wade discusses paintings in the storeroom with the HKI group. (© Polkownik)

However, perhaps what I found most impressive, particularly given the small size of the institution, was the conservators’ involvement in exhibitions and dedication to research. For instance, the conservators from both the Guildhall and the Hamilton Kerr Institute (Sally Woodcock, Spike Bucklow) significantly contributed to the 2011 Sir John Gilbert exhibition, with articles on the technique of the artist and his frames in the resulting publication Sir John Gilbert: Art and Imagination in the Victorian Age. We were particularly delighted to see a number of watercolours created in the spirit of Gilbert to demonstrate the extent of fading due to negative environmental conditions.

Eating lunch with a view of St. Paul’s Cathedral (© Polkownik)

In the afternoon, after a lovely stroll along the River Thames, our HKI group visited the paintings conservation studios at Tate Britain. The department was absolutely packed with paintings being treated in preparation for installation at the new Tate Modern opening in June.

The paintings conservation department at Tate Britain (© Polkownik)

A common theme running between a number of the works we saw being treated was inherent vice and the unpredictability of modern materials. These works include some of the following cases: a painting comprised of crumbling, dirt-like material; a modern painting with sensitivity to water and susceptibility to burnishing; and paintings with layers of mixed media, possibly megilp, and varnish interlayers, causing extreme difficulty in varnish removal. In one work in particular, consisting of painted canvas and hanging burlap, there was the added concern of respecting the artist’s intention that the painting showed signs of age and that its history be visible.

Another painting we saw with condition issues stemming from material instability was a Gary Hume, with whom Tate will be working closely during conservation. In this work, fatty acid crystals have formed in some areas due to the oil component in the alkyd house paint that the painter used. The conservator treating the painting will be exploring how to best remove the efflorescence through a variety of tests and by working with conservation scientists at the Tate to measure any resulting gloss change and observe visual alterations. The aim is to publish an article dealing with the findings.

In addition to discussing these treatments with a number of conservators in the department, Paintings Conservator Annette King spoke with us about her research on Pablo Picasso and Francis Picabia, undertaken through the Clothworkers’ Conservation Fellowship. Her interest in paintings that have been significantly reworked or over-painted by the artists themselves has involved the study of several key paintings with various analytical and imaging methods such as X-radiography and infrared reflectography. Annette’s research will culminate in a symposium held at Tate on November 25, 2016.

It was an absolute privilege to hear about the current projects at both the Guildhall Art Gallery and Tate Britain, and we are extremely grateful to our colleagues for hosting our visits and for their generosity with their time.

Kari Rayner – 1st year Post Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute


Ms Kari Rayner graduated with a Master of Arts in Art History and gained an Advanced Certificate in Art Conservation from New York University, USA. She also has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History, Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University, USA. During her graduate studies, Kari interned at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne and worked at Modern Art Conservation in New York, NY. Her final-year internship was undertaken at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and she will be returning to the NGA in fall 2016 to begin an Advanced Fellowship in Paintings Conservation.

To contact Kari Rayner: